Episode 130. Conversion (1)

Following their defeat on the Istein Plains, the Nocteins desperately tried to recapture some of their eastern territories before winter came. Knights and mages were deployed deep into occupied lands to harass their enemies, attacking soldiers and supply lines in an attempt to reverse the unfavorable war situation.

Among these, some of the attempts proved successful, and the Nocteins made minor gains. However, that was the extent of the changes. The Adenburg forces did not budge, despite their supply lines becoming a bit disorganized.

The Adenburg Kingdom endured the ever-increasing attacks as they prepared for the winter, and ultimately, the Nocteins regained less than 20 percent of their eastern lands.

This development was infuriating for the Nocteins. However, it was the Griffindor Kingdom that truly found the situation unfair.

The seven griffin riders were the pride and joy of the Griffindor Kingdom. Not one, but two of these griffin riders had been captured in battle, and this had not happened in one of their own wars, but a foreign conflict.

Not only this, they had lost more than just the griffin riders. The reputation of the Knights of the Azure Sky was also in tatters.

“The image of the griffin crying out under the talons of the red wyvern is not fitting of a divine master of the wind.”

“The true rulers of the skies are Drachen and his wyvern, not the griffins.”

The deployment of the griffin riders drew much attention because they had been sheltered at their royal capital for so long. And when they ultimately lost, the Knights of the Azure Sky were endlessly criticized.

“Drachen should be known as the master of the skies. The griffin riders don’t deserve that title.”

The Griffindors were upset not only at losing their kingdom’s treasures in a foreign war, but also at the ridicule they subsequently received.

However, the true disgrace was neither the loss in reputation nor the ridicule they received.

“If you want your Knights of the Azure Sky returned, you will accept all of our demands and provide additional compensation. If you refuse, the seven knights will become five.”

Having emerged as a superpower after absorbing the eastern Noctein territories, the Adenburg Kingdom continued by pressuring the Griffindors.

The Griffindor Kingdom went into a panic. 

When did they ever before have to worry about the opinions of other kingdoms? 

There was no greater disgrace.

If they pridefully rejected the Adenburg demands, the prized griffins would decrease from seven to five. Meanwhile, they had no way of anticipating how much they would need to surrender to acquiesce.

Time steadily passed while they were unable to act, and winter arrived.

Winter was a harsh season for everyone, but especially for the losers.

***

“The Noctein nobles responsible for losing their territories were largely executed and had their wealth confiscated.”

Seon-Hyeok’s jaw dropped at Commander Mangsk’s words. He knew that the Noctein leadership lacked foresight and were out of their minds considering the reckless policy of looting neighboring kingdoms, but had not anticipated they would treat their own people in that same harsh manner.

“The Noctein nobles stood by and said nothing as that happened?”

“Not only did they do nothing, but they also jumped at the opportunity to assign blame for the defeat on their eastern lords.”

He frowned upon hearing of the ruthless Noctein treatment following the war.

“That kind of kingdom somehow managed to survive until now?”

The Noctein Kingdom was far more barbaric than he imagined.

“That’s the Noctein way.”

Regardless of their internal policies, it was clear that the wealth of the now-executed nobles would be of considerable help in restoring the finances and power lost during the war. In fact, the commander verified that although the Nocteins could not avoid a drop in quality, their military numbers had recovered all the way to their pre-war levels.

“How is it possible that they create additional soldiers just like that?”

“It’s impossible for our kingdom, but not for the Nocteins.”

The commander noted that the Noctein people, used to looting and aggression, were naturally rough and fierce, and thus suitable for immediate conscription to their military.

Despite this, it was impossible, even for the Noctein Kingdom, to maintain the same quality of fighting strength. The loss of their archers could not immediately be remedied, but more importantly, the dead knights and mages could not be replaced like ordinary soldiers.

“I’ve been told they lost around 20 knights and mages combined on the western front.”

Commander Mangsk’s voice was full of price.

Even in that treacherous battlefield, where the main Griffindor and Noctein forces clashed, the Nocteins had lost only around 20 superhuman beings. It was a testament to their phenomenal vitality and the protection they received.

Over the course of the Adenburg-Noctein war, however, the Nocteins had lost nearly 70 such beings. Seon-Hyeok was responsible for the vast majority of these casualties.

In the first battle, Seon-Hyeok had singlehandedly ended 30 mages defended by the Blue Wolves, one of the five Noctein knight units. He continued by steadily harassing the Blue Wolves as they yearned for revenge after failing to complete their duty.

It was an unimaginable achievement made by a single human.

However, that was not the end of his accomplishments.

The Red Wolves were sent to replace the depleted and demoralized Blue Wolves. They thoroughly prepared and took lessons from their comrades’ struggles, and they had successfully drawn him into a trap.

However, even the trap was unsuccessful in tying Seon-Hyeok down. Rather, Talisman, the head of the mage unit, and many of the senior Red Wolves lost their lives. The only survivor was their leader, Halo.

It was the most humiliating defeat in Noctein history – the first time they had ever lost two mage units against a singular foe.

With that one battle, Drachen’s reputation was no longer limited to the Adenburg and Noctein Kingdoms, but rather had spread throughout the continent.

He became known as an absolute force capable of shrugging off enemy traps and slaughtering his enemies.

But there was even more.

Seon-Hyeok followed this up by beating the griffin riders, long highly-regarded across the continent. Roland of the Gale suffered two crushing defeats, and Lafayette of the Burning Flame was captured without being able to put up a fight. This news plunged the entire continent into chaos.

“The title, ‘Divine Master of the Wind’, found its true owner.”

As the reputation of the Knights of the Azure Sky held considerable weight throughout the years, Seon-Hyeok’s renown rose in kind after his repeated victories over the griffin riders.

Even so, no matter how well known he may be across the continent, it was nothing compared to his reputation among the Western Army.

“Defeat does not exist where Drachen is present.”

For the Western Army, Drachen was the embodiment of victory. His influence was comparable to that of a member of the royal family.

Despite this being a potentially sensitive situation, the Adenstein royal family remained unwavering in their faith towards the foreigner.

“Earl Drachen is a true noble representing the Adenburg Kingdom. If anyone dares to place blame on him and bring him misfortune, I will personally denounce that individual in the name of the royal family.”

The nobles were concerned about the excessive favor and trust given by the royal family towards this foreigner noble, but they dared not step forward to voice their objections.

After all, it was burdensome even for renowned nobles to denigrate Drachen, having emerged as a war hero and now known by every last person in the kingdom.

And so, in just a few short years, he had risen from an average cavalry rider to a prominent noble.

However, Commander Mangsk did not consider Seon-Hyeok’s position and rewards to be excessive. He thought it was natural considering the foreigner’s tremendous achievements.

“If it weren’t for you, this war would have been difficult.”

The commander showed a simultaneously proud and bitter expression.

He had long stated that the battlefield was not a playground for superhuman beings. However, once these individuals took to the field, there was nothing left for ordinary soldiers and their commanders to do. The battlefield was utterly dominated by them.

His lifelong belief had been completely rejected, and Seon-Hyeok dared not guess how great of a loss the commander felt.

“Commander…”

“Don’t make that face. I’ve also realized many things from this war.”

Commander Mangsk suggested that the mobilization of knights and mages during this war was a turning point, and that future wars would be determined by how well kingdoms managed both these superhuman beings and the ordinary soldiers.

“You’ll be able to do it well, commander.”

The commander shook his head.

“That’s not a job for me. I’m a remnant of the old times – I will back away, and subsequent wars will be led by the new generation.”

It was then that Seon-Hyeok recalled that the commander had already announced his impending retirement. The commander gave him a look full of trust.

“People like you.”

Confused, Seon-Hyeok just tilted his head. The commander seemed to be deep in thought.

***

Following their capture during the Battle of the Istein Plains, Lafayette and Roland were detained at Fort Kalstein. They were confident that their kingdom would not abandon them, but naturally grew uneasy as the duration of their captivity grew longer. Their original pride was nowhere to be seen.

In all honesty, the treatment they received as prisoners was not bad. Of course, it could not match the lavish rooms and meals offered at their capital, but the Adenburg command showed great attention to these prisoners to be returned for a king’s ransom.

Nonetheless, the two knights remained discouraged.

“You’ll be returning home soon, so why are you so depressed?”

Unable to understand, Seon-Hyeok eventually could not help but ask. To the knights, the foreigner’s words seemed to be somewhere between questioning and mockery.

“How could we not be sad that the reputation of the griffin riders has become a laughingstock?”

Seon-Hyeok snorted at Lafayette’s words. These words seemed ridiculous and insincere coming from knights incapable of maintaining their honor.

And in fact, there was a separate reason for their disappointment. It was around the end of winter that Seon-Hyeok discovered the truth.

“If you feel so wronged, then feel free to return and challenge me for a duel anytime. I’ll be happy to accept.”

“There likely will never come a day where we challenge you over who the true master of the skies is.”

There seemed to be something more than a defeatist attitude behind the knight’s statement. However, Lafayette showed no signs of explaining.

“Once we return to the kingdom, we will lose our titles as Knights of the Azure Sky, and we will be deprived of our qualifications as griffin riders.”

Instead, it was Roland who answered.

“Roland!”

Lafayette shouted and tried to suppress the immature knight, but Seon-Hyeok held him back.

“Lose your qualifications as griffin riders?”

Seon-Hyeok no longer had any interest in the Knights of the Azure Sky, but he could not understand how the griffin riders could lose their griffins.

“There aren’t just seven of us. To be exact, Knights of the Azure Sky is simply the collective name for a specific group of knights.”

“Explain.”

After looking towards Lafayette for a moment, Roland closed his eyes and continued.

“Sir Lafayette and I, along with many other knights, simply became griffin riders because of our aptitude for that position. Since we brought shame to our kind, we can’t expect to maintain our status going forward.”

This was all new to Seon-Hyeok. The Knights of the Azure Sky was not the title of the seven griffin riders, but the unit consisting of those worthy of assuming that position.

“I heard that once they decide on an owner, griffins won’t change their allegiance until they die. So how would these beasts be forcibly taken away?”

Though there was little known about the Knights of the Azure Sky, he had picked up bits and pieces about their mounts. What he did know about the griffins made Seon-Hyeok even more confused.

“We weren’t the griffins’ masters in the first place.”

When Seon-Hyeok gave a disbelieving look towards Roland, Lafayette stepped up instead.

“The seven griffins all belong to the Griffindor king. We, as qualified riders, are simply able to borrow His Majesty’s mounts for short periods of time.”

“By now, the Griffindor Kingdom may have already taken punitive actions. After all, the imprinting made on the griffins is absolute and transcends distance.”

Roland suggested that if the Griffindor king had already reached this decision, the two of them would only be able to ride the griffins once more to return home.

“In that case, your situation would be pretty dire once you return.”

As they were still senior knights, there was no scenario in which the two would be neglected by the kingdom. However, they would be deprived of luxuries they previously enjoyed and eternally haunted by the loss and shame they experienced. After all, these were proud knights.

“Hm…”

Seon-Hyeok fell deep into thought. After a while, he finally opened his mouth.

“I’ll ask you one thing.”

His eyes were slightly tilted, as though he had just thought of something amusing.

“What is more important to you: your loyalty to your kingdom, or the glory of being griffin riders?”

“What does that mean?”

Lafayette flatly responded, thinking little of the question.

“If I let you continue riding the griffins, what would you do? Would you still return to your kingdom?”

The two knights tilted their heads in confusion as they watched this foreigner speak as though he personally owned the griffins.

“Speak. What is more important to you?”

Seon-Hyeok ignored their reaction and demanded their answer once again.

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